11th October 2011
Death, Burial and Rock Art: new discoveries
in Western Britain
It was third time lucky for the Society when, after a couple of unavoidable postponements, George Nash was finally able to visit and talk to us. Lucky because George is one of the foremost authorities in the country on Rock Art. And particularly lucky because he was able to tell us of an exciting discovery that he has made since he last had to postpone his visit.
But first George gave us some background to the current state of knowledge of Prehistoric Rock Art. The traditional view is that the Upper Palaeolithic was a very cold world with an average temperature somewhere between C -5 and C -15 degrees. Think of people living in conditions similar to those experienced by Inuit Indians in Canada and the Arctic today, though it was not quite so simple as the temperature varied throughout the period, which lasted from approximately 30,000 to 10,000 BC. Some 16,000 years ago, while the last Ice Age still held sway, the Gower lay a mile or two below the southern limit of the ice. Weston-super-Mare would have looked out on a River Severn that was very much smaller, as the sea level was considerably lower. Plant life would have consisted of juniper and dwarf birch growing in a mossy plain. Animals would have moved south in winter.
George speculated about the possibility that people living in Britain at that time may have had a distinct and exclusive rock art tradition different to that elsewhere in Europe. And, if they had, whether it may be able to tell us anything about life in what was potentially one of Europe's most inhospitable places.
The problem of course is the limited nature of material remains from such an early period. Whereas it is estimated that 40 per cent of Roman cultural artefacts can be described (and rather less for the medieval period), almost nothing remains for the Upper Palaeolithic. It is likely that many artefacts were made of organic, and thus perishable, materials.
Nonetheless it is clear from the little that we do have that Upper Palaeolithic (UP) humans were creating and decorating objects for distinctly symbolic purposes. In the course of his PhD research George had studied some 1344 carvings of elk, red deer etc. and developed a definite feel for their characteristics.
George then proceeded to recount the early history of UP studies which was fraught with lack of material, misinterpretation, controversies about dating and even hoaxes. The "Red Lady of Paviland", an early burial found in one of the caves of the South Gower Coast, is a good example of dating issues. Early descriptions of the Paviland remains suggested a Roman date. With the invention of radiocarbon dating the remains were originally dated to 16,000 BC in the 1960s and, with successive improvements in the technology, to 26,000 BC, and currently 31,000BC.
The burial of the Paviland body had included worked ivory rods and a necklace, and George quoted other examples of decorated objects such as perforated shells and zigzag carving on bones. There was, however, no known example of British Cave Art until the discovery in 2003 of some 15 carved figures of animals in the Creswell Crags caves of Derbyshire. They were dated by finds of contemporary flint tools and laboratory analysis of "stal" or stalagmitic flowstone to approximately 12,000 BC. This discovery by Paul Bahn and Paul Pettitt revolutionised the evidence for the UP in Britain as it was not only the first such discovery but also the most northerly example known in Europe.
And so George brought us to his recent exciting discovery. For 20 years he has been taking students to the Gower Coast to view the famous caves and it was on such an occasion in September 2010 that the discovery was made. George declined to name the cave in question but he did inform us that it lay a short distance inland and had been the site of a number of interesting finds over the years, including animal remains of the palaeolithic period such as mammoth and woolly rhinoceros. He went back for one last look at the end of the day and saw to his astonishment a scratched image of an animal with distinctive torso, legs and head. He was confident in identifying it as a reindeer on account of its distinctive antler set.
The image was 10cm x 11cm and located in an extremely awkward position. Nonetheless it was possible to take a series of photos which he was able to stitch together to produce a single acceptable image of the animal.
George managed to get four expert verifiers to view the carving, and the majority supported his interpretation as a genuine example of UP Rock Art. Perhaps best of all was the fact that the image was sandwiched between two layers of flowstone which made it ideal for dating. This has been duly carried out and the date of 12,572 BC arrived at.
How fortunate that George was able to get his find recorded, verified and dated, because, as a downbeat ending to an otherwise cheering tale, he had to report that the story of the discovery got out and, in the absence of suitable protection, the image had recently been vandalised and thus lost to posterity Yet hope of a happier outcome remains in George's hints that the cave and some of its neighbours almost certainly contain further examples of rock art.
For further reading he recommends:
Art as Metaphor: The Prehistoric Rock-Art of Britain, Archaeopress, Oxford, 2008.
George's account of his finds can be found on the links below: